NEW YORK — Tick, tock, tick, tock . . . .
That's the sound of time passing, 25 years in the case of Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz, or 40 if you count the lifetime of that journal of opinion, published since just after World War II by the American Jewish Committee.
Left, right, center, right . . . .
That's the motion of the political pendulum that Podhoretz and his publication have swung from, starting, if not exactly as a firebrand, certainly with no lack of controversy, in 1960, and drifting steadily, strongly, solidly to the right.
Neo-conservative is the term that most people paste on Podhoretz and Commentary alike these days. Commentary's editor and frequent contributor, the 55-year-old Podhoretz, merely shrugs and says that yes, " neo-conservative is a word I have surrendered to after resisting for a long, long time."
Certainly, Podhoretz said Tuesday night as about 250 people poured into the chic Rainbow Grill to honor his quarter-century at the helm of Commentary, "certainly 25 years ago Commentary was a radical magazine." But "we did in the '60s break rank with the left." Actually, Podhoretz said, "I had always thought of the magazine moving to the center rather than to the right."
Standing there in his tuxedo, greeting guests, as one of them observed, "like a Catskills tumler ," Podhoretz conceded, however, that "in some ways the magazine has swung, and in some ways the world has swung."
Sixty-five floors above the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, the big skyscraper itself was almost tilting a bit to the right Tuesday night, so heavyweight was the crowd of conservatives, neo and otherwise, who gathered to celebrate Podhoretz.
"Well, I will leave you to make that judgment for yourself," Podhoretz said when asked if he could feel the building leaning right. "I would say it is solidly centered, well-anchored in the center of American political and intellectual life."
"This is the heart of the so-called neo-conservative movement," said American Jewish Committee spokesman Morton Yarmon. To that movement, Yarmon said, "the intellectual solidity has been given over the years by Norman Podhoretz." Commentary magazine, Yarmon said, "has in the past 25 years come to be the public organ of the movement."
Nearby, for example, septuagenarian William Phillips, for 50 years the editor of Partisan Review, was trading political quips with a crowd he has sometimes gone head-to-head with in print on his own periodical's pages. Like his old friend and sometime intellectual sparring partner, Phillips and his magazine have gravitated steadily to the right. As for possible political sympathies with Podhoretz, Phillips, leaning on his cane, smiled and philosophized: "There are some similarities; there are some differences."
Said Phillips, "Sure, I've been swinging back and forth all my life."
On their respective pages, Phillips went on, "we have polemics and we have disagreements. We fight it out in the magazine.
"And on occasions like this," he said, "you bury the differences."
Political Labels Passe
Labels, sniffed American Jewish Committee president Howard I. Friedman, labels like conservative, neo-conservative, arch-conservative, even (as a whispered word in this particular surrounding) liberal , "these labels don't mean anything anymore." Just off the plane from Los Angeles, Friedman checked his coat and checked out the crowd around him. "It would be difficult to describe many of the people here as to the right of anything," Friedman opined.
As one prominent example, "well, now, Henry Kissinger is a Democrat, a Scoop Jackson Democrat, and no one ever accused him of being a neo-conservative."
A Scoop Jackson Democrat? Could one be classified in that category even after the death of the former senator from Washington?
Friedman smiled. "I hope so. I am one."
Kissinger, not surprisingly, was accorded near-royal treatment as he entered the party on the arm of his wife, Nancy. Photographers flashed with a frenzy, and old and/or would-be old friends fairly glued themselves to the one-time secretary of state and top adviser to presidents.
Locked in Conversation
Soon Kissinger was locked in conversation with former network correspondent Bernard Kalb, now the spokesman for the Reagan State Department, and curious guests hovered about hoping for a word with Kalb's boss, Secretary of State George P. Shultz. And any minute now, an American Jewish Committee spokesman reassured anxious press types, any minute, U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick would be arriving at the gathering as well.
"Shultz is the star tonight," an American Jewish Committee aide said, "although Henry Kissinger would probably say he is the star, and Jeane Kirkpatrick would probably say she is."
The aide groaned, albeit delicately. "Now you know some of the protocol problems in trying to run one of these things."